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'And Pineapple the Twinkle-Toed Elf says…' Amazon vs. Google (vs. Facebook) — Part 3
By: Andy Weiss
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This is the third and final installment in a three-part look at what it would take for Google or even Facebook to challenge Amazon’s e-commerce dominance.
Amazon equals online retail. But now Google has it squarely in its sights. But is Google the most viable challenger? How about Facebook? Amazon established its e-commerce reign based on three basic pillars — products, data, and reviews — that any challenger needs to match. Parts One and Two examined Google and Facebook’s ability to compete on product and data. Now we shift our focus to reviews.
When was the last time you purchased something at the recommendation of a friend or neighbor? Or before making a purchase of some kind, have you sought out the advice and opinion of people who own the same product or have tried the same service? I'm guessing most of us have, but how does this play out on the Web?
Taking a scroll down any product page on Amazon will reveal a myriad of customer reviews and star ratings for the product. This is the site’s effort to mimic our offline, referral-seeking behavior. A cursory scan reveals that these reviews are directional at best. You probably don’t know Scott from Oregon who gave it four stars and said it was “great with a few flaws.” But perhaps you know “Pineapple the Twinkle-Toed Elf” who thinks it’s a great device. Sure, you could read their other reviews, but the pseudo-anonymous nature of Amazon’s customer reviews is not quite the same as soliciting opinions from people you know. While the transparency of these reviews has improved over the years, it is not to say that they haven’t been free from controversy or promotional bents. But the point is that getting others' perspectives plays a key role in the purchase process and Amazon has found a formula that works to great success.
While Google has begun to imbed some star ratings from third parties into its search engine results, their shopping results are significantly more price-focused than anything else. Both are clearly data-driven and focused on the goal of providing the best, most relevant results for a given search rather than helping guide a purchase decision. Outside of search, reviews and comments play a much greater role in some of Google’s other properties, like YouTube, where consumer clicks, views, and comments can launch a video into the stratosphere. Another spin on information sharing occurs on Google+. Amid some backlash, Google has gone to great lengths to ensure that the people within a given social network are indeed real people — thus removing some of the anonymity of Twitter, Facebook, or even Amazon. Your circles may be posting and sharing comments or experiences they’ve had related to a given product. Some may be even giving them a +1. Beyond creating another social network, Google is clearly using Google+ and the +1 to experiment with bringing a more human element to their data and bridging the gap to more traditional consumer reviews. Currently, neither has the scale to demonstrate value or influence in the buying process. However, both will be needed for Google to make headway in the retail commerce space.
Enter Facebook. Eight hundred million plus active users interacting on more than 900 million pages, group events, and community pages. That’s a lot of “liking.” But the real value is beyond all those likes and into what people are saying and sharing. For the most part, we know our Facebook friends and we know their opinions. Therefore, Facebook is just a quick pivot away from being able to turn those posts into the equivalent of customer reviews. This is the crux of the data/value exchange for Facebook, and it serves as one of the key tenants of true social commerce. Say you are looking for an e-reader, or, better yet, a handyman in your area.  You could do your own research, but it is just as easy to ask your Facebook friends by posting the question on your wall. Because you already know the people responding, you are better equipped to evaluate their responses. In a different scenario, say you’re trying to make a purchase, schedule a trip, or put on an event between friends. What if you were able to coordinate all of that through Facebook? Some brands are beginning to dabble in this arena on a small scale, but none have the scale yet to make any real mark. Brands aside, the trick is for Facebook is to either facilitate this behavior for brands or to capture it, catalog it, and give it scale on its own without losing the one-to-one nature. The methods for doing that are beyond the scope of this post, but the potential is there…particularly because Facebook already has the scale within the social network. And this is the one reason that Facebook poses a serious challenge to both Amazon and Google in the retail commerce space.
Challenger Advantage: Facebook
After delving into Google and Facebook’s ability to compete with Amazon along three basic pillars, neither is currently set up to pose an immediate threat to Amazon. However, that window is closing and the lines between search, social networks, and shopping are rapidly merging. And as that happens, one of these two is poised to tackle Amazon on its home turf. But then again, there’s also room for a dark horse.

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About the Author
Andy Weiss is a digital direct marketer, consumer evangelist, change agent, and cultural anthropologist.
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